GREEN BAY - The morning after the Green Bay Packers ended their season with a whimper against the Detroit Lions, winds of change swept through Lambeau Field. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was fired; so too were defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley.
A bombshell quickly followed: Ted Thompson was out as general manager after 13 years.
Later that afternoon, a young member of the Packers’ roster texted a reporter to express concern. He wondered if players were about to be cut. He vowed to play better next season.
“It was up and down for me this year,” the player wrote. “Next year I need it to be all up.”
Such trepidation is exactly the type of environment Brian Gutekunst promised to create when the Packers introduced him as general manager at a news conference Monday. His warm demeanor and deferential fondness toward Thompson, whom he described as a mentor and close friend, provided requisite cushion to unveil an approach to player acquisition and roster management that aligned more closely with Ron Wolf than his immediate predecessor.
To put it simply: Some of what Gutekunst does will mimic Thompson — particularly when it comes to drafting, developing and retaining his own players, just as the Packers have done for years — but the ways in which he garnishes the 53-man roster will not. With Gutekunst in charge, aggression should follow.
“I think I learned a long time ago, from the beginning, that you always want to create competition,” Gutekunst said. “And once you kind of realize a player isn’t good enough you need to move on. Even if the player you bring in you’re not quite sure is good enough either, it’s better to move on and bring another player in and see if he can do it rather than stick with the player you know can’t. I think that’s part of it. I don’t think comfort on a roster for players is good.”
Thompson’s indifference to churning the bottom of his roster was among the principal criticisms of a team that succumbed to injuries the last two seasons, especially in the secondary. There were myriad reasons why coach Mike McCarthy parted ways with Capers, who had run the defense since 2009, but relying on undrafted free agents such as LaDarius Gunter, Makinton Dorleant, Lenzy Pipkins, Josh Hawkins and Jermaine Whitehead did nothing to aid the cause.
Aaron Nagler speaks with Pete Dougherty about the announcement from the Packers that GM Brian Gutekunst, head coach Mike McCarthy and newly promoted executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball will all report to Mark Murphy USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
In fact, Thompson often handcuffed the coaching staff by squeezing the confines of the 53-man roster, forcing McCarthy to win football games with a razor-thin margin for error. Consider the following players from this season's team, all of whom contributed mostly on special teams if they even saw the field at all: cornerbacks Pipkins and Donatello Brown, safety Marwin Evans, offensive linemen Dillon Day, Ulrick John and Adam Pankey, running back Devante Mays, fullback Joe Kerridge and outside linebacker Chris Odom,
To say that none of those players is valuable would be incorrect. But it’s difficult to win the Super Bowl when 17 percent of the active roster offers nothing on offense or defense.
“I don’t know that I’d phrase it that the cupboard was bare,” Gutekunst said. “I just think that there became opportunities for guys and they didn’t (take advantage). Now there will be new opportunities and there will probably be new faces and things like that to take on those opportunities. You never really know. We build from the draft, and sometimes you get young players that don’t particularly step up and do their end of it. There was some of that this year.
“I think we have a lot of quality pieces to this team, but there’s a lot of work to do as well. We need to get competitive at every group. We need to have competition across the board at every group, so nobody feels safe. I think that’s important. I think competition allows talents to rise and allows the cream to kind of rise to the top, so to speak. That, to me, is where we need to go.
“We need to take every opportunity to improve the roster from the top to the bottom so that there’s competition all the time — even at the end of the season when you’re banged up and you’ve got nicks and things that you’re not just holding on but you actually have competition and guys understand that if they don’t perform, there’s someone right there willing to take their spot.”
One way to increase competition is to mine the free-agent pool year-round, something Thompson did very little of in March and even less of as seasons progressed. It’s one thing to splash $50 million or $60 million on a marquee starter whose mere presence can change the tide of an offense or defense. It’s another thing altogether to sign low-budget veterans who provide valuable depth come December and January.
Still, there is no guarantee that either approach will prove successful, and the Packers need look no further than tight end Martellus Bennett (March 10, 2017) or cornerback Bene Benwikere (Jan. 17, 2017) for proof that everyone misfires.
But you can’t find gold if you don’t dig, and with Gutekunst the Packers have a general manager who is more than ready to try.
“Obviously, our foundation is going to be the draft,” Gutekunst said. “But I think (free agency) is an absolute must as an accessory piece. The thing that I’ve already told our guys is that we’re not going to sign every player. We’re not going to be able to make that the foundation of our team. But we want to be in it and we want to be in the know of everything that’s going on and, if it makes sense for us, not to be afraid. We have to be prepared enough to pull the trigger.
“We’re not going to leave any stone unturned as far as every avenue of player acquisition. Doesn’t mean we’re always going to get to the finish and actually sign the guy, but we’re going to go throughout the entire process and be in on every possible acquisition. Our guys are really excited about that.”
BRIAN GUTEKUNST FILE
Name: Brian Gutekunst (GOO-tuh-kunst)
Hometown: Raleigh, N.C.
Family: Wife (Jen), three daughters (Marley, 12; Joie, 11; and Kacey, 6) and one son (Michael, 8).
Residence: Green Bay.
College: Played two seasons at Wisconsin-La Crosse before a shoulder injury ended his career. Served as an assistant coach with the team in 1995-96; he was a linebackers coach for the 1995 team that went 14-0 and won the Division III national-championship season.
Football roots: Father John Gutekunst was head coach at the University of Minnesota from 1985-91.
NFL debut: Assisted New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff with the offensive line during training camp in 1995.
First scouting job: Joined the Kansas City Chiefs as a scouting assistant in 1998.
Packers start: After having served as an intern in the scouting department in 1997, returned to Green Bay when Ron Wolf hired him as a college scout Dec. 30, 1998.
Promotions: After 13 years as a college scout, he was promoted to director of college scouting in 2012. Three years later, on March 21, 2016, he was promoted to director of player personnel.
Aaron Nagler hosted a Facebook Live session with readers following Brian Gutekunst's introductory news conference as Packers GM, sharing his thoughts and answering questions. (Jan. 8, 2018) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin